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By Susan Parmelee
May is Mental Health Awareness month and a good time to evaluate how well you are taking care of yourself and to check in with the people you care about. Recent research suggests that a mindful approach to self-care benefits our own mental health as well as our relational functioning. In other words, when we are at our best it rubs off on our children, spouses and other significant relationships. Following are five guidelines for a mindful approach to personal mental wellness.
Take time to connect to people around you; cultivate and strengthen these relationships. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and email are not enough. Face-to-face time is very important, so make time to Skype or telephone where emotion is more easily understood. Relationships are vital as they increase our feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. When you notice your child is isolated in their room or you have been too busy with work, take the time to invite them to go on a walk with you, reconnect over dinner and a movie or just sit and talk. Reach out to a friend you have not seen in a while. These activities have the double benefit of making two people feel happier.
How you take care of your body can have a strong effect on your mind and emotions, so it’s important to eat well and be active. Most people can identify a time when a poor diet or lack of exercise led to a pervasive bad mood. Conversely, when we eat properly and take time to move our bodies the good feelings follow. Being active actually raises the levels of endorphins in our brain that contribute to positive moods. This does not mean we need to spend hours at the gym; simply throwing a baseball, kicking a soccer ball or walking with a friend or family member can boost your well-being.
Make learning an important part of your life. We often relate learning to the years we spend in school, but studies show that as adults we need the continued challenge of mastering new skills. Learning something new does not require formal education. Pick a new cuisine and learn the recipes, pick a podcast series that focuses on a subject that interests you, or visit a museum and learn about an unfamiliar artist. Find others to learn with and you will strengthen relationships at the same time.
The next strategy is my favorite, and I have written about it in the past: give to others. One of my favorite social giving campaigns is from Sandy Hook Promise and is called “Start With Hello.” This program encourages everyone to always greet each other and is designed to ensure that others do not feel the effects of social isolation. Just thinking about giving this way makes me feel more optimistic and hopeful about society. Small acts and more formal volunteering provide a sense of accomplishment and belonging—both keys to better mental well-being.
Finally, be mindful. This practice entails being in the present moment and being aware of both our emotional and physical states. When we pay more attention we are then better able to respond positively to signs of stress and anxiety and adjust our lives accordingly. Practicing mindfulness has demonstrated strong health benefits for both heart disease and chronic depression, but everyone can benefit from these practices.
To learn more about wellness practices and easy steps towards mental well-being, I recommend the Greater Good website, www.greatergood.berkeley.edu. Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!
Susan Parmelee is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.